Luster looks like a typo, but it’s not. I promise! This is Raven Leilani’s debut novel, published back in 2020. It was an instant New York Times best seller upon release, it set book clubs ablaze with ample conversation fodder, and reviewers went gaga for its intense prose and millennial sensibility.

Luster - Raven Leilani - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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My edition was blurbed by Candice Carty-Williams (“the most delicious novel I’ve read”), Zadie Smith (“brutal – and brilliant”), and Brit Bennett (“I couldn’t put this one down”). But those sought-after recommendations don’t compare to the avalanche of recommendations I received from readers, booksellers, and loved ones.

Luster follows Edie, a 20-something Black woman who gets involved with Eric, a middle-aged white man. He’s in an “open” marriage – aside from his wife’s obvious displeasure with the arrangement, and her hand-written list of rules that Edie has to all but sign in blood. Already, you’re probably rolling your eyes at Edie’s terrible decision making, but let they among us who didn’t make poor romantic decisions in their 20s cast the first stone.

Where Luster gets weird is that Edie’s relationship with Eric takes a back-seat, quite early on. Instead, the propulsion comes from her interactions with Eric’s wife, Rebecca, and their adopted (Black) daughter, 12-year-old Akila. When Edie loses her job while Eric is out of town, a series of strange (somewhat over-the-top) coincidences sees her move into the family home with Rebecca and Akila, where she becomes a ersatz family member, an aunt and an errand girl and an in-home authority on Blackness(TM), who just happens to be fucking the patriarch.

Edie and Rebecca really evoked The Age Of Innocence for me (the fact that both Leilani and Wharton’s novels are set in New York helps). It’s the hot mess versus the cool cucumber, the sexed-up mistresses versus the domesticated wife, and the passive man in the middle, feeling sorry for himself. Even the endings match up – Eric ends up staying with his wife, and no one comes out of it unharmed.

Luster levels-up on Wharton, though, by introducing the race element. Being a white Australian, I’m obviously in no position of authority to speak on this and I probably missed at least half of what was going on. But the fact of both Edie and Akila being Black, and Akila being raised by white parents, makes for fascinating power shifts in the already-dysfunctional family dynamics.

The prose is witty, sharp, explicit, and matter-of-fact. As messy as Edie’s mental state is, her narration of Luster is dry and acutely observational. Leilani does really interesting things with sentence structure, extending clause-upon-clause before punctuating the paragraph with one short jab. It sounds complicated, and was probably a bitch to write, but it makes for very smooth and entertaining reading. I think it’s testament to Leilani’s mastery of the prose that Edie never gets too frustrating, despite her bad decision making, and the plot never stretches too far beyond believability (which was always a real risk – see above, strange coincidences).

I will offer trigger warnings, too, for abortion/miscarriage, violence, suicide, and yet another dog death. The latter happens off-page, but was described in enough detail to make me recoil. Luster‘s content, on the whole, is pretty discomfiting and I’d imagine there’s a large segment of readers who won’t be inclined to it. But for those of us who are willing to sit with the discomfort and let Leilani take us where she wants to go, it’s a very worthwhile read.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Luster:

  • “talk about cardboard characterization. Edie is flatter than the cardboard on a break dancing floor.” – jcsreader
  • “Not impressed by a TwentySomething author who just invented sex, self-debasement and irony.” – Stacia
  • “The only positive thing I can say is the book is short at 200+ pages, so the torture is short-lived.” – DWC